What I’ve been reading in March 2021

Margarette Lincoln, London and the 17th Century: The best writers of history don’t just give a bird’s eye view of major events; they know when to drop to ground level for small details that make the past come alive. Lincoln’s history of 17th century London is strong in that department. Amidst wars and plagues and revolutions are nestled chapters on such mundane matters as gardening and coffee houses. I can vividly picture this prototype of the hipster barista:

[…] to drink coffee, an exotic import, was a mark of status. In a coffee house, customers felt themselves to be men of standing, at liberty to take centre stage whenever they had news or opinions to impart. The coffee-man flattered this sense of individual importance, striking an affected pose as he poured the liquid into each dish.

Drawing of a London coffee-house, c. 1690–1700 (© Trustees of the British Museum)

I was struck by a different, more consequential continuity between then and now that runs as a theme through the whole book. In the 17th century, affordable printing and increasing literacy in the city gave rise to the phenomenon of pamphleteering. Political actors of all stripes would have pamphlets printed to distribute in the streets and pubs, often with the intent to sway or moderate the public or the mob (a term coined in this era – short for mobile vulgus, “fickle common people”). News periodicals with reach and editorial standards were only just starting to emerge. A weak press overwhelmed by an unchecked rumor mill fueled by new or newly accessible technology – sound familiar? Lincoln acknowledges the parallels to an early 21st century media landscape when discussing the power struggle between Charles I and parliament in the 1640s:

Radical propaganda now swamped London, and the power of unregulated print was exploited for political ends, just as social media would be 400 years later. Parlamentarians rushed to publish their version of the king’s attempt to arrest the five Members [of parliament]; scandalous rumors of the royal family’s supposed involvement in the Irish rebellion were not just whispered but openly published.

All considered, I was rather engrossed in this part of my project to grow a deeper understanding of the British – any history of London is necessarily also a history of this collection of countries that now (for now?) constitute the UK. Next stop: The 18th century, probably through the lens of Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837.

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